Before this weekend, I hadn’t played World of Warcraft since a Saturday afternoon in late 2005. That was the only day of my life I spent playing one of history’s most successful video games. A WoW-free decade later and with an archaeological curiosity, I’m giving it a fresh try.
I’ve merely put my toe in it so far. I’ve done beginner quests in the game’s free starter edition and have grown a Tauren hunter from level 1 to level 7. That took a little over an hour, with some stumbles along the way.
I’m not interested in leveling faster or buying my way into a higher character, because I want to play through the game slowly. I want to witness the sedimentary layers of a decade’s worth of changes and improvements.
I’m banking on the idea that video games tend to get better the longer they’re worked on. You can see it in expansions and sequels that often give level designers and artists room to flex their creativity in ways they could not for an initial game that, as they so often are, are beset with the technical struggles of just getting the game to work and be somewhat fun. You can see the improvement that a foundational game affords by picking up the 2014 game Destiny, playing through the dull quests it launched with and then advancing to the vastly more interesting and visually striking missions of its 2015 Taken King expansion. The game’s creators made their game better once they got their initial attempt in players’ hands.
World of Warcraft has enjoyed more than a decade of revisions, most notably through expansions released in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014, with another on the way. I’m eager to climb up past those layers and see what the game’s developers at Blizzard accomplished. I know it won’t be a straight line of improvement, and I know that Blizzard has gone back and revised plenty of WoW’s early content. I’m excited to nevertheless see what I can see.
I started on Saturday, simply enough, by picking a server.
I had many races to choose from.
I chose Tauren, hoping it’d help me remember what I’d done that Saturday afternoon so many years ago. This time I decided to play as a hunter, not a druid. My WoW-whisperer and colleague, Mike Fahey, knew I wanted to be able to solo as much of this massively-multiplayer game as possible and said that a hunter would be good for that. (Fun side note! I’d last played in 2005 but didn’t cancel my subscription until 2007.)
I had a purple bird as a pet. I’m not sure why and figure they added that at some point. Sure, why not? They’d added motorcycles, too, but sadly I didn’t get one of those at the start.
The game begins, at least for Tauren hunters, with a dramatic, sweeping flythrough of a lovely forest clearing. There’s some very serious narration that’s larded with a glut of proper names that all blended together. I didn’t understand what was going on. It didn’t matter, because swooping and flying over scenery always looks cool, even in a decade-old game.
The graphics you see when playing a heavily-revised 2004 game on a good 2016 gaming PC are a fascinating combination of crude and crisp. Everything is so clear, but the game struggles to draw its scenery quickly enough. Objects that should be visible are invisible until they pop in at the last second. Much of the scenery is so primitive that the game looks like a pop-up book, its trees shaped from a small number of flat planes.
And yet the game pulls off a lovely trick right at the start by revealing that what looks like a canned flythrough is really a flythrough over a living game world. Real players’ characters are down there on the ground. A bigger crowd clusters where you, the first-time player, will begin. Blizzard has given the other players quest-related reasons to cluster there, ensuring a first-time player will get the hint that this game will not be a lonely experience.
Here, for the record, are the settings I’m using for the game. My computer must feel like it’s curling five-pound dumbbells.
World of Warcraft, like many other MMOs, is notorious for the tedium of its tasks, though I’ve heard the quest design got better over the years. As a new character, I was immediately asked to do the most rote things. Kill six of this. Find 10 of that.
I expected this. Witnessing the weakest parts of early WoW is part of the point of my playthrough. I’m hoping to see the game get more interesting the further I play into it and figure that sometimes a Level 1 character’s just got to pay their dues. I think of this as my getting-my-bosses-cups-of-coffee stage of my WoW-playing career. If they ask me to go to the post office to mail a package, I’ll go. I’ll even grab them lunch.
I also am aware that a lot of the opening stuff in WoW was revised in 2010, so I’m expecting a potential dip in design quality if I ever get to parts that didn’t get a makeover. My other WoW-whisperer, Gergo Vas, has warned me to lower my expectations when I finally make it to a place called Outland.
A technical note: For reasons not worth explaining other than to elucidate that, yes, I’m obviously a console gamer at heart, I’m playing WoW off my TV. My PC is hooked up to a decently-sized TV in my living room. WoW’s interface isn’t meant to be read from couch distance, not unless you blow it up.
With my pet at my side and my screen now feeling less like an eye exam, I started doing quests.
I delivered an etched note:
I practiced the steady shot.
I was feeling good. My progress bar was filling up. Then... I got lost. I’d been following quest markers. I’d been doing what the game was telling me to do. Suddenly, it wasn’t telling me anything.
I checked the map.
Any indications? None.
This seemed wrong. But it also seemed right. The cliche of WoW is that the game holds your hand, points you from one tedious fetch quest to another. This was not quite the WoW I was experiencing. This game expected me to figure some things out for myself. I found that tantalizing. Maybe, I thought, the game wants you to wander and discover naturally.
Or maybe my game was glitched. I wandered for 15 minutes. Then I rebooted.
Nope. Same problem. So I deleted my character.
I wasn’t going to wait another decade before trying again. I was going to start over and figure out what I or the game had done wrong. Mike suggested I play as a gnome. Gnope! I would be a Tauren once more.
I jumped back in. I watched the flythrough a second time and got a better grasp on what was happening (internal Tauren strife... not that important, really. Not really anything non-Taurens would understand.)
I did those initial quests again, poked around on the game’s windows and bottom bar, figured out some key commands, even deduced out how to set a new personal best for screen clutter.
I soon figured out, to no one’s surprise, that the game hadn’t glitched. The mistake was mine. I’d lost track of a quest giver Adana Thunderhorn who stood in an unmarked part of the map waiting for me to notice the punctuation over her head and take on some new quests. Whoops.
Back in a groove, I did more quests and leveled up.
I burned three battleboar troughs. I killed 10 armored battleboars. I obtained one Mane of Thornmantle. I placed an offering.
I earned gear, and I applied it to my character, who was already starting to look cooler. Exciting! I’m a fan of characters looking cooler as you adorn them with better gear.
I’d seen motorcycle guys and wanted to look like them, but I surely was not ready for that.
In these early hours of WoW, I briefly considered reading the lore text for every quest I take on. Readers will kindly tell me if that is at all a wise idea, but I have decided, at least in the early going, that it is not.
I am, frankly, too busy to read this lore. I have busy-work to do. I need to level up.
Little of what happens early on in World of Warcraft is very exciting. You’re clicking boxes and checking off boxes. You have very few abilities, so the combat is the same click-and-wait auto-attack loop. You have no incentive to do things with other players. You keep an eye on your task list, and you hope your experience bar will fill up so that you can get the chance to look cooler, do cooler things and finally be asked to do something interesting. The designers seem to be aware of this and accommodate your restlessness by letting you briefly fly. At least this is true when you’re a Tauren, the only World of Warcraft life experience I have. Hopefully they do this for the other peoples of Azeroth, too.
The flying is, of course, as basic as it gets. The first time you do it, you turn into some sort of spirit bird and fly from a hilltop down to a town. The second time you do it, you ride a beast that, in 2016, looks like cool-looking origami. You can turn the camera but have no direct control. You fly to a guy in one town and then get a quest to fly back.
One of my favorite parts of my early World of Warcraft experience is seeing the intrusions of more modern WoW. There’s those alluring motorcycles I spotted earlier. In the midst of my flying chores, I spotted this rocket.
When can I get that?? This is, of course, me expressing eny, the animating force behind so many multiplayer games. I will see cooler things and keep clicking away until I too can have them. (Eny is a cousin of the fear of embarrassment and inadequacy, the motivating principle behind the success of another mega-hit multiplayer game, Farmville, whose players, the designers realized, didn’t want friends dropping in and seeing withered, unwatered crops).
I’m expecting World of Warcraft to be more alluring the more I play it, but looking back at the footage I’ve captured, I see some good artistic intent even in these early sections.
Below, for example, is the spot where you get the quest that sends you flying on the back of a beast to a town up in the mountains. The quest-giver stands among the beasts, who rest while waiting to be mounted and flown. My eye hadn’t been drawn to them, which might be a challenge of directing player attention in the open expanse of an MMO, might be a flaw in the layout or might be me just not being acclimated yet to reading the scenery well in a game like this. Regardless, in a still image, it’s clear there’s good work afoot:
As I’ve been playing as a Tauren, I’ve wondered what World of Warcraft’s other species are doing. What keeps those panda people busy, right? I’m looking forward to finding out. In the beginning, though, Taurens are mostly around other Taurens. This type of cultural homogeneity is the default of so many games with characters of different types. In Zelda, for example, the Gorons mostly live with Gorons, the Zoras with Zoras. The under-loved Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks works against this and encourages players to introduce characters of one type to another. It’s a great touch, but we are not here today to discuss under-loved Zeldas. Instead, I must note my fascination with this guy:
I look forward to finding out what Var’jun’s deal is. I also note that his appearance was the first non-Tauren friendly (right?) face I saw. His presence hints at the multiplicity of beings that I’ll encounter in this game’s world. The quests started doing this, too. Seconds after meeting him I was taking on a new quest to check out a missing caravan and, sure enough, there was another species of character there in the form of Venture Co. laborer.
I had to kill him, of course.
I leveled up.
That’s where I stopped playing on the second day of my life that I’ve played WoW.
At this point, I’m level seven. I don’t have a rocket, but I have a gun, a cape and that pet bird for whatever having a pet bird is good for. The concept of the quests I’m going on seems to be turning from one of internal Tauren strife to problems with outsiders. It suggests that a greater world is out there. I look forward to going out into more of it and maybe obtaining a motorcycle. My climb has begun.